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Court clothes: appropriate and inappropriate

By Selwyn Ryan

Israel Khan had a bitter quarrel with Chief Magistrate Sherman McNicolls in January 2005 over a matter which, in retrospect, seems to many to be bizarre. Khan, who is currently seeking to unseat Dana Seetahal as chairman of the Council of the Law Association,was disbarred from appearing in the Chief Magistrate's Court to protect the interests of four police constables whose conduct was under investigation.

Khan tells us that he was embarrassed when Mr McNicolls told him that he could not be given an audience in the Coroner's Court because he was not properly dressed. Khan was wearing what was referred to then as a "Nehru" suit as opposed to the "jacket and tie" which was normally worn in the courts. The outraged attorney proceeded to gave the magistrate a discourse on what constituted appropriate dress in a society such as Trinidad and Tobago in 2005, which by then had accepted saris and which had given up wigs.

Khan told McNicolls that he was being unreasonable and irrational since what he was wearing was a full Nehru suit and not merely a jacket. He also told the Chief Magistrate and that in denying him audience, he was depriving him of an aspect of his cultural heritage. Khan appealed to McNicolls to leave him "with a little remnant of his cultural heritage".

Khan advised McNicolls that his cultural heritage was not European alone, and that he was in fact a hybrid. He further told McNicolls that the Nehru suit was one of the elements of Indian dress that penetrated Indian society. As he explained, "this style of suit was single breasted and slightly fitted with a buttoned band colour. It was based on a traditional Indian jacket and named after Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who commonly wore this cultural Indian garment. This suit was worn as an alternative to the European suit.

Several issues were raised by the exchange. One was the fact that Khan's appeal took close to seven years to wind its way through our byzantine court system. What was also instructive was that the matter arose in 2005 and not during the 60s and 70s when things British and European were being challenged and rejected by many, both young and old. In those years, many young and not-so-young rejected European traditional dress, and asserted instead aspects in their emergent post-colonial identity. Also at issue was the question of what constituted appropriate dress. Was there something about the jacket and tie which gave it universal status or was it in fact European dress which was being imposed on the rest of the world as part of Europe's imperial project?

These questions were being fervently asked by those of us who were struggling to determine who or what we were in a world that was changing rapidly. I was part of that generation that sought to determine who we were and what was appropriate, and not only in terms of dress. In my own case, I recall not drinking Scotch whisky during most of the 14 years I spent in North America. I drank rum and rye whisky instead. I also wore African-style clothing instead of suits and ties, even when it was physically difficult to do so, given the severity of the Canadian winters.

One incident which I recall occurred in Ghana, where I was teaching in 1967. I went to the Parliament to listen to the debates that were then taking place about the new constitution that was being enacted to replace the one put in place by Kwame Nkrumah, who had been overthrown. I was denied entry because I was wearing neither a European suit nor traditional African wear. My outfit was a variant of the Nehru suit that was used by many French West Africans. I went home and returned the next day wearing a Northern Ghanaian traditional outfit which I believe I still have.

Many others made similar choices and had difficulty gaining acceptance. I recall a discussion with the former Chief Justice, Sir Hugh Wooding and Telford Georges, former chief justice of Tanzania, while serving on the Wooding Constitution Commission. Georges wore a Nyerere-type jacket. I never saw him in jacket and tie. Wooding for his part, wore a Nehru type suit. I recall him complaining that the Arima Turf Club required him to wear a European-type suit to enter the Box. My recollection is that he refused. Eric Williams, for his part, justified his continued use of a jacket with the argument that he needed pockets in which to put his tobacco. He occasionally relented - usually for political reasons - by wearing a cravat instead of a tie when he went to the panyards in 1971.

Continuing on this personal note, I recall that my father, who must have been to more funerals than christenings, always wore suits to attend funerals. The prevailing belief is that one should honour and respect the dead whom it was presumed wished to be buried in a suit surrounded by friends and family all wearing their "Sunday Best". We note that some religious groups dress "down" instead of dressing "up".

Returning to the subject of what type of clothing should be worn when going to court, I recall a story which I was told by my father about the gardener who was scolded by a magistrate for not being properly attired. The latter got up and bravely told the magistrate, "Sir, you are wearing your working clothes, and I am wearing mine."

I wonder what was said by the judges as they debated the question as to whether they should wear wigs or not. One might have observed that wigs and masks were being worn in many African and Asian societies long before jackets and ties became fixtures in European societies. They were part of a strategy to depersonalise the adjudicative function.

Some of the issues raised by Khan's appeal are still with us. Ironically, today we have the reverse of the problem which was confronted by Khan . Standards and styles of dress have not merely become more relaxed and "culturally indigenous".

In many cases, the standards have become 'lax' and in some cases slack. Teachers and civil servants can no longer be distinguished from students and the general citizenry. One cannot now distinguish between what is appropriate for the beach, the road on Carnival day or the bedroom. And our young men in the ghetto mimic those in US prisons who wear their pants below their waist and their crack lines. The more underpants they display, the more enhanced they believe their reputations become.

Khan cannot however be blamed for all that has happened.

He did what "History" ordained.

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